The Portola Valley-based chiropractor and nutritionist is president of California Ships 2 Reefs, a group of devoted scuba divers, scientists and engineers whose avowed goal is to sink "20 ships in 20 years" off the California coast. If they succeed, the result will be an underwater playground of artificial reefs that would attract enough riotous marine life to make Jacques Cousteau jealous.
It may seem like a zany scheme, but Wong is dead serious. He's already been offered a decommissioned Navy submarine to sink, the USS Sailfish — he just has to convince state regulators to allow him do it. Last year, Wong founded the Northern California Oceans Foundation to reach out to 10 Northern California cities adjacent to the locations he's chosen for his first 10 offshore wrecks — one in Monterey Bay, four at Fort Bragg, three in Eureka and two near San Luis Obispo.
Mindful of the economic benefits of eco-tourism, the city of Eureka already has offered Wong's group two derelict fishing trawlers to sink, which he hopes to do by spring 2008.
California Ships 2 Reefs has yet to submit a formal application for the submarine or any other vessel because the group is still fundraising to acquire them.
Still, "we're way past the idea stage," said
Wong, who has convened a volunteer scientific committee and a permit working group to begin the process of sorting through the snarl of state and federal regulations he will have to comply with. With more than 10 agencies involved, from the U.S.EPA to the California Coastal Commission, the process can take up to five years and cost
$2 million or more to acquire, clean, prepare and sink a ship.
As daunting as it sounds, it was already accomplished by another group, the San Diego Oceans Foundation, in 2001. The nonprofit, which shares several members of its leadership with California Ships 2 Reefs, sought and obtained 11 permits from different state agencies to sink the Yukon, a Canadian destroyer escort, off San Diego. The sinking of the Yukon garnered was the first sign in decades that the state's defunct Artificial Reef Program could be revived.
Wong's passion for scuba diving developed along the seabeds of Monterey and elsewhere in Northern California in 1974. Two decades later, he was struck by a realization.
"I would always notice that every shipwreck that I've dived near in the Caribbean was teeming with marine life. When I came back to Monterey I had a startling wake-up call. The amount of fish I saw on the same sites I dove before was easily reduced by 50 to 80 percent."
Wong concluded that adding artificial reefs would enhance California's marine environment and attract scuba divers.
"It turns out that not only is it positive for marine life, in all likelihood it will also increase eco-tourism," he said.
Certain agencies, such as the Navy and the U.S. Maritime Administration, have responded positively to Wong's proposal on an economic basis. The government has donated old ships to be sunk off the Gulf Coast for decades. The Maritime Administration alone has 125 decommissioned ships to be scrapped and few U.S. scrap yards to send them to, said Shannon Russell, spokeswoman for the agency.
"We have to remove these ships and there's only a certain amount of capacity to dispose of them. Artificial reefing gives us another avenue to do that," she said.
In fact, the Maritime Administration is in the midst of arranging to have the Texas Clipper I, an old educational ship, sunk off the Gulf Coast this March. The agency will also donate $125 million to prepare the Hoyt S. Vandenburg, a former troop transporter, off the Florida Keys in relationship with a local nonprofit called Artificial Reefs of the Keys.
California's coastline is already littered with the husks of sunken fishing boats, pleasure boats and other vessels sunk over the years — some by accident and some on purpose. For official purposes, however, California has no reefing program.
The federal government will only turn a ship over to a state agency, not a group or an individual. As such, California Ships 2 Reefs is hard at work recruiting the California Department of Fish and Game to act as an administrative liaison throughout the permitting process.
Sonke Mastrup, deputy director of the agency, said his initial meetings with the group were promising.
"We certainly have an interest in it to some degree. We don't see the ships as significant habitat (for fish) but we see the economic value of it," said Mastrup. "We're willing to see if we can't make this work on a statewide basis."
Mastrup's agency is aiding California Ships 2 Reefs' efforts craft a piece of legislation that would re-activate the state's Artificial Reef Program, which was founded in the 1980s and primarily dumped rocks and rubble on the sea bed to augment fish habitat.
Environmental groups are less enthusiastic about the project's benefits to marine life. Scientific studies conflict on whether the sunken ships simply attract fish with the habitat they produce or actually promote the growth of adult fish populations over time. A study conducted in 2000 by scientists at several University of California campuses that explored the growth of marine life surrounding the state's decommissioned oil platforms could find no "sound scientific evidence" that they enhanced or reduced groups of fish or shellfish.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary spokeswoman Rachel Saunders attributed the loss in fish populations Wong observed while scuba diving to overfishing, not a lack of habitat that could be fixed with artificial reefs.
"There are plenty of habitat areas for fish to feed on," said Saunders.
Paradoxically, adding artificial reefs could also result in a fish kill, said Tim Eichenberg, regional director of the Ocean Conservancy.
"Once you've got something down there on the bottom that attracts fish, fishermen use that to catch fish — so you may actually be reducing the productivity of the oceans," he said.
Wong's proposal to place a submarine in the marine sanctuary would only succeed if he could prove there would be few negative short-term impacts to the local ecosystem, said Saunders.
"Our concerns would be any discharge associated with the vessel, seabed disturbance, how stable the vessel would be. We would have concerns about PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other contaminants," she said.
PCBs, asbestos, fuel oil, lead paint and other hazardous materials are found on many former military ships. The U.S. EPA adopted a new set of "best management practices" for preparing vessels in 2006; it identified each of these toxins and the best way to dispose of them. The EPA must now approve the clean-up job on every ship prior to sinking it.
The job is a meticulous one. For instance, even after PCB-containing cable insulation and electronics are removed from the ship, they can still lurk in the oil used to conduct electricity, according to the EPA.
In a way, increased environmental regulations have worked in Wong's favor. In 1994, the Toxic Substances Control Act put a moratorium on the popular U.S. Navy practice of exporting PCB-contaminated ships to India, Turkey and other foreign countries for scrapping. The move resulted in the present backlog of defunct World War II and Cold War-era vessels rusting at berth outposts across the country, waiting to be recycled.
A report prepared by the National Defense Research Institute for the U.S. Navy in 2001 demonstrated that after exporting them, reefing the ships was the second most economical way to dispose of them.
Wong now has his eye on the 75 mothballed vessels held by the U.S. Maritime Administration at a shipyard in Suisun Bay. Fifty of those vessels are scheduled for scrapping, said agency spokeswoman Russell.
The largest obstacle to making Wong's proposal a reality is funding. The San Diego Oceans Foundation was able to raise $2 million in private donations to purchase, tow, clean and sink the Yukon in 2001. That sort of money is hard to come by every year, said Mastrup of the Department of Fish and Game.
"If they want to sink a ship we don't really have a problem with that. But we're not going to spend that kind of money to sink ships," said Mastrup.
Wong said he hopes to have the Navy pay for the cleaning of the vessels they would donate to the state, the way it did for the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany before it was sunk off Pensacola in May 2006.
He's also hoping to persuade local hotels, city governments, corporations and scuba divers to help fund the project as direct beneficiaries.
"We're making headway in what we need to do. Do we know the exact details on what to do? No. But we have a vision," said Wong.